Dukkha and the ill-fitting wheel

Posted by on Nov 14, 2013 in Buddhism | 17 Comments

Something’s not quite right, is it?

You like your job but your boss is a pain. You like your house but it’s in the wrong street.

Or maybe everything’s fine and still you can’t quite enjoy it. You know you should be having the best time ever, but something’s missing.

Buddhists have a word for this. Dukkha.

What is ‘dukkha’?

Dukkha is sometimes translated as suffering, sometimes as unsatisfactoriness, and sometimes as stress. It doesn’t have a perfect translation, but there’s an image used in the ancient texts that I think sums it up extremely well.

The image is of a chariot with one wheel that doesn’t fit properly. The chariot is lovely, but the ride is made uncomfortable be that one wheel.

Perhaps the wheel will come off completely and you’ll end up falling off the edge of the track, tumbling down the mountainside to your death?

Perhaps it won’t, but with a thought like that in your head, how can you enjoy the ride?

This seems to be a fundamental characteristic of life.

We chase around like dogs on speed trying to put it right. But as soon as you fix the wheel, the steering starts to feel a bit dodgy! And then by the time that’s fixed, the chariot is not looking quite as fashionable as it was when you bought it, and you start thinking about the need for a new model.

What’s the answer? Stop trying?

The monastic path is, at least metaphorically, exactly that.

Wear the same set of robes everyday, get up when you’re told, eat what you’re given. The army without guns.

The end, theoretically, of vanity. The end, theoretically, of your attempt to control the uncontrollable.

That approach suits some people. It’s not my cup of tea.

And yet I regard myself as a serious and committed practitioner of the Buddhist way. How can this be?

The Buddha said that he wouldn’t die without making sure that there were enlightened monks and enlightened nuns.

He also said that he wouldn’t die before there were enlightened lay men and lay women.

Whether he actually said that or not isn’t the important thing. The important thing is that ‘orthodox Buddhism’ sees lay life as a context for awakening.

And what’s even more important, so do I!

Living with awareness

Whether you’re monastic or lay, you struggle with pretty much the same mind. The mind latches onto whatever it has available to play out its dramas.

Perhaps you want a new Mercedes. Perhaps you want a little more gruel for breakfast. Same craving.

Sure, one life may encourage more consciousness of this, but in all lives there are opportunities for conscious living, and for distracted living.

In all lives we must make the active choice to live with awareness.

Craving and how to respond to it

Weirdly, the ill-fitting wheel isn’t the problem. The problem is we’d rather it wasn’t there.

This craving for an alternative to our present reality is actually the cause of suffering, not the wheel itself.

But how does that help us? How do you stop craving the things you crave?

The first thing is to stop craving to stop craving. Then, at least, you’re only dealing with one level of craving!

You’re alive, you aren’t a Buddha, you’ll experience craving.

That’s not such a big deal.

You’ll also, therefore, experience dukkha.

This is a shame, but actually it’s not such a big deal either.

Once you’ve got over needing yourself to be different from how you currently are, you’re on your way.

From there, you practise the Buddhist path.

The Buddhist path is an end-to-end life-transformation programme that would’ve made the Buddha super-rich if he was living in America today.

Buddhist practice is extremely powerful. You need to build up some momentum, and treat it as a marathon instead of a sprint. But once you’re moving, the momentum starts to build and you can see the effect it’s having.

This inspires confidence in the path, which in turn gives your practice greater momentum.

You aren’t enlightened until you are

Sometimes I hear people say “You meditate, how come you’re stressed?”

Or “You’re a Buddhist, you aren’t supposed to get angry.”

This is nonsense. There is a world of difference between a Buddh-ist and a Buddh-a.

For the entirety of the path, you’ll experience craving. Don’t sweat it. Embrace your life. Practice. Your awakening will happen when it’s good and ready.

And by then you won’t care whether it happens or not! :-)


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